Tools, tips, and terrible traditions for raised beds – Part 2

Native topsoil – with native rocks.

Last month I started a series on raised bed gardens, focusing on materials and designs. Today I’ll mention some of my favorite tools and materials for putting everything together and getting ready to plant.

Getting your soil ready for raised bed use

Tools and materials: shovel, wheelbarrow, tarp, soil screens

If you’ll recall from my previous post, I like using native soil for raised beds (assuming it is not contaminated with heavy metals or other undesirable chemicals). We have glacial till soil, which means it has a LOT of rocks of various sizes. The bigger ones are easy enough to lift out, but what about all the other ones?

First, realize that SOME rocks are no big deal. In fact, they are important in reducing soil compaction. Finely sieved soil, especially clay soils, will be more prone to compaction than a soil with small pebbles scattered throughout. But the larger rocks are a nuisance.

Small rocks in your raised beds won’t interfere with vegetables but help prevent compaction of heavy soils.

For the first pass through, I have found a plastic crate to work really well. It’s lightweight and the holes are large enough to let soil move through quickly, while retaining larger rocks. I like the milk crate size as it’s easiest to handle. Just set the crate in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp, fill it full of rocky soil, pick it up and shake.

These plastic crates are sturdy and easy enough to lift when filled with soil.

The rocks left in the soil for the most part are easy to work around, and you can always pick out the larger ones as you go (my personal choice). Or if you want to give it another screening, you can build wooden frames with different gauges of hardware cloth, or chicken wire, to remove more of the rocks.

This is a simple soil screen built with 2×4 boards and hardware cloth.

This is a time-consuming process, but the benefit is that you don’t have to top off your beds every year. Your native soil will not be subject to high levels of decomposition and subsidence as will many commercial topsoils with their high organic content.

When you’re ready to fill your beds, be sure to add more soil than you think you will need. It is going to settle, and you may need to add a little more the second year to bring it back to your desired level. But you shouldn’t have to add any more in the future.

Water and time will help soil settle to its final level.

Throughout the soil preparation process, be sure to work when the soil is dry, or no more than just damp. Working wet soil is difficult, and wet soil compacts.

But what about heavy clay soils?

Unless you’ve done a soil texture test, you really don’t know what you have. So before you take another route, make sure you really have a heavy clay soil. If it’s just compacted, then proper mulching will solve that problem too. If it’s truly a heavy clay – let’s say over 40% – then yes, this soil might not be best for a raised bed. In that case, I would suggest finding a different topsoil mix, where clay is no more than 30%. Lay down a membrane to keep this soil separate from your native clay soil. Your raised beds will now function more like giant containers, and you will have to make allowances for drainage along the sides of the beds.

You can estimate how much clay you have in any soil type using this chart.

Your beds are ready – how to keep them that way before planting

Tools and materials: coarse organic mulch, wheelbarrow, mulch fork or shovel, rake, soil temperature probe

A mulch fork will make your life so much easier!

Once your beds are filled, it’s important to get them planted as quickly as possible to prevent continued erosion of that bare, loose soil by wind and rain. If you aren’t immediately planting, then you need to cover the soil with a protective mulch. The only choice you have, if you wish to keep your soil environment hydrated and aerated, is to use a coarse organic mulch. Sheet mulches are not advised since they will interfere with water and air movement. Even if you don’t have plants in the soil, there are microbes and beneficial animals that need a constant influx of oxygen and water. A coarse organic mulch, installed to a depth of at least 4 inches, will facilitate water and air transfer and also keep weed seeds from germinating.

Keep unplanted beds protected with coarse organic mulch.

If you’ve been following my posts over the years, you already know I’m going to recommend using a wood chip mulch. Its benefits to soils and soil life is well established and it is easily moved once it’s time to plant. But you can use pine needles, straw (not hay!), and other coarse organic materials for this purpose. Fine textured organic materials like compost should never be used as a mulch, as thick layers of compost are more restrictive to gas and water movement and also facilitate weed growth. Save compost for a thin topdressing when your soil anywhere on your property is in need of organic matter, and be sure to cover it with woody mulch to keep those weeds out.

This thermometer will help you plant seeds at their optimum time.

While waiting for the right time to plant, consider purchasing a soil thermometer. They are inexpensive and easy to use.  Good publications on growing vegetables will tell you what the soil temperature should be when you plant: planting too early can lead to reduced seedling survival. And while you are waiting you can install a rain gauge nearby, so you can monitor irrigation needs throughout the growing season.

What’s next?

Next time we’ll discuss the dos and don’ts of raised bed maintenance during the growing season and before planting the following year. Most of these practices are adaptable to traditional vegetable gardens, so be sure to check it out!